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Labor Militancy vs. Ethnic Conflict in Yugoslavia
by Dave Stratman, New Democracy
Millions of Americans are shocked, confused, or disgusted by the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The bombing doesn't seem to make any sense. Military analysts have stated repeatedly that bombing alone will have little effect on Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic's ability to carry out the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. Indeed, the NATO bombing has led to a massive increase in the number of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo—just as predicted. In addition, far from weakening Milosevic, the bombing campaign has immeasurably strengthened his hand, so that a democracy movement which two years ago seemed close to overthrowing Milosevic has now been drowned in a sea of Serbian national unity against the US and NATO. The US bombing has given Milosevic something he could never have achieved by himself: an external enemy against which all Serbs can unite.
What's going on here? Why would the US and NATO undertake a bombing campaign which has achieved the opposite of its stated goals?
The Hidden History of the War
The most important facts for understanding the present situation have been carefully concealed by politicians and the media.
Since the mid-1980s, Yugoslavia has been the scene of a powerful working class movement which threatens to overthrow the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-backed ex-Communist government. (Kosovo is an "autonomous region" and Serbia the largest of the six republics which formerly constituted Yugoslavia.) Since 1987, Slobodan Milosevic has been the IMF's strongman in Belgrade, trying to enforce IMF-imposed wage cuts and capitalist restructuring against massive worker resistance, and organizing ethnic atrocities and civil war in a desperate bid to forestall revolution.
In the face of widespread worker discontent about the lack of democracy and a 7-day student takeover of the University of Belgrade in June, 1968 (under the slogan, "Down with the Red Bourgeoisie"), Yugoslavia borrowed heavily in the 1970s and built up a huge debt to the IMF, which in 1985 topped $20 billion. Payback began in 1980. From 1980-84 the standard of living in Yugoslavia fell nearly 40%. In 1984 strikes centered in the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia broke out and spread to other republics.
The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and the ethnic fighting and atrocities are parts of a carefully orchestrated elite strategy to divide and destroy the working class movement.
Strikes and demonstrations continued to grow. In July, 1988 thousands of striking Croat and Serb workers "in a revolutionary mood" fought their way through police cordons and stormed Parliament. They called for "united action by the entire Yugoslav working class." In October, 30,000 workers bearing red flags and banners proclaiming, "Long Live the Working Class!" and "Down with the Fascist Regime" occupied the iron works in Titograd and forced the resignation of Montenegrin Communist officials, while in Belgrade 5,000 Serb workers fought their way into Parliament to demand the resignation of the government. Strikes and hyperinflation swept the country. In December, 1989 there was 2000% inflation . Over 650,000 workers from several republics went on strike together.
In 1990 the Yugoslav government under Ante Markovic administered "shock therapy" to the economy, imposing more stringent capitalist restructuring designed by economist Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University (who was also responsible for designing capitalist restructuring in Poland and Russia). The reforms at first seemed to be succeeding, but by the spring of 1991 they had collapsed in the face of massive worker resistance. Clearly some stronger medicine was needed to bring Yugoslav, especially Serbian, workers to heel.
Divide and Rule
The working class movement brought together Yugoslavs of every ethnic background. The movement was at least implicitly revolutionary, and it terrified the international elite, for if successful it might easily spread beyond Yugoslavia and spell the end of the smoothly-managed transition from Communist to capitalist forms of elite rule in Eastern Europe. As the elite are aware, successful revolution and true democracy anywhere could well lead to revolution everywhere.
As the working class movement grew, the Yugoslav ruling elite increasingly faced a stark choice: either smash the growing movement or go under. Rather than lose their grip on power, they decided to dismember the working class movement by dismembering the country. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and the ethnic fighting and atrocities are parts of a carefully orchestrated elite strategy to divide and destroy the working class movement.
The six republics of Yugoslavia were united under a non-ethnic Communist government since the end of WWII. Slobodan Milosevic became chairman of the Serbian League of Communists in 1987 and later president of Serbia and of Yugoslavia. He organized the "Milosevic Commission," which in 1988 called for market-oriented reforms, and he "urged Yugoslavs to overcome their 'unfounded, irrational, and...primitive fear of exploitation' by foreign capital." Milosevic moved to destroy working class resistance to IMF restructuring programs.
With "near monoply control" of TV, radio, and newspapers in Serbia, the Communist government under Milosevic began an intensive propaganda campaign to divide the working class into warring ethnic groups, claiming that Serbs, the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, were under attack by Croats and others in the republics beyond Serbia. In every republic, ethnic groups were bombarded with propaganda to set them against each other. Nationalist paramilitary groups were organized to carry out "retaliatory" atrocities. Serb nationalist thugs were armed in Croatia, while Croat officials armed their own groups. Nationalist parties representing various ethnic groups were legalized and received increasing support.
Slovenia, the most developed of the republics, seceded from Yugoslavia in June, 1991. A 10-day war followed which "instilled a sense of discipline and national pride in the Slovenian labour force" and finally enabled Slovenian leaders to restructure the economy. Fighting broke out between Serbia and Croatia, and atrocities were carried out to stoke ethnic hatred. "The people carrying out these actions were generally not from the local area. It was not a case of people who'd lived side by side for decades suddenly deciding to kill each other. Neither was it an eruption of long-suppressed ethnic hatreds, as the media make out. It was a well-organized state policy." Croatia, Macedonia, and later Bosnia-Herzogovina also seceded. Serbia, Montenegro, and the autonomous region Kosovo are all that remain of Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile the opposition movement continued to grow. In March, 1991 a half-million marched on Belgrade, demanding the ouster of Milosevic, and anti-government riots shook the capital. In April, 1991 700,000 workers in Serbia-one-third of the workforce-struck. In July, 1993 farmers blockaded roads and unions called a general strike. In August the government issued a 500 million dinar note-worth about $10. In September 1993 the Bosnian Serb army mutinied.Thousands of Serbs avoided the draft or deserted. In 1992, only 10% of young Serbs in Belgrade called by the draft reported for duty. In 1995, only 6% of young Montenegrins called reported for duty. Whole villages conspired to hide their young men.
We should build a worldwide revolutionary movement to overthrow elite power and establish true democracy.
In winter, 1997 fifty consecutive days of massive demonstrations demanding the ouster of Milosevic shook Belgrade. According to a former Boston Globe reporter living there who fled once the bombing began, the same crowds are now in demonstrations against NATO organized by Milosevic, while the leaders of the democracy movement are all fleeing. "[NATO] had to know bombs would crown Milosevic emperor for life."
Elite Goals in Yugoslavia
To figure out the real goals of political leaders, sometimes it's necessary to look not only at what they say but at what they do. What have the US and NATO leaders actually done in Yugoslavia? Through the IMF they have imposed repeated wage cuts, devaluations, and massive lay-offs. They supported a "peace process" which has kept that country in a state of war for eight years. They brokered agreements producing massive dislocations of populations and the fragmentation of Yugoslav society. And now with their bombs they are driving people into the arms of a hated politician whom people before the bombing had been trying to overthrow.
Milosevic has been the US-IMF man all along. Bombing Kosovo and Serbia is a last desperate bid by the elite to smash the revolutionary movement and keep Milosevic in power. The targets of the bombs are the solidarity and self-confidence of the working people of every ethnic group. They want to destroy the working class movement and divide Yugoslavs into warring fractions. Their goal is counterrevolution.
This Moment in History
The actions of the US and NATO are not signs of strength but weakness. Acting through the Yugoslav elite they tried to control working people with Communist rhetoric, with capitalist rhetoric, with threats, with police clubs, with bullets, with "restructuring," with ethnic atrocities, with civil war, and each time they failed. They rely now on massive military force because they lack sufficient moral or political credibility to achieve their ends by other means. They carry out these actions at great political cost: their actions expose them as utterly without morality.
The world elite are willing to pay this price because they know that much more is at stake than Yugoslavia alone. The last few months have seen neighboring Romania, where workers overthrew a Communist dictator in 1989, shaken by huge strikes and marches on Bucharest by miners and other workers. Neighboring Albania has been virtually without a government since a popular uprising in 1997. Russia, with its historic ties to the Serbs, is in the throes of strikes and complete disillusionment with capitalist reforms. NATO air strikes are no doubt intended to rally the people of these countries to their respective elites and to tell them also, "Keep in line or you'll get the same."
Now when it seems at its moment of greatest power, the world elite is actually very weak. It has no ability to inspire, only to compel. People are bound to elite control not out of loyalty but because they see no alternative.
What is the alternative? We should build a worldwide revolutionary movement to overthrow elite power and establish true democracy, based on equality and solidarity and the social relations of working men and women of every race and nationality. This new world exists now, in the lives and struggles of ordinary people everywhere. Wherever men and women treat each other with love and respect, wherever people love their children and teach them to be considerate human beings, wherever people support each other in the face of attacks, wherever people stand up and fight for a better world, there reside the values and relationships which are the basis of a new society.
Afterword: Invisible Workers
To prepare this article I reviewed a number of current books on Yugoslavia. None of them mentioned the strikes. Only one or two mentioned the massive demonstrations against Milosevic. I also reviewed current left analyses. The struggle of the working class of Yugoslavia doesn't figure in most of them. (One anti-Marxist publication from the UK, Wildcat No. 18, Summer 1996, had some good analysis.) The information in this article comes almost entirely from newspapers: the Guardian, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe. The fact that years of massive working class struggle in Yugoslavia is invisible to scholarly writers and also to the left is a sure sign that we need a new way of seeing the world.
1. Yugoslavia was a one-party Communist state until 1990, when one-party rule was replaced with political pluralism, and the Communist Party changed its name to the Socialist Party.
2. For a description of the 1968 student strike, see Alex N. Dragnich, Yugoslavia's Disintegration and the Search for Truth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 91 ff. Dragnich says, "The [Tito] government was quick to grasp the threat to its very existence if the students succeeded in making common cause with the workers." By the end of the 1960s, a "wage-price spiral" caused by worker insurgency gripped Yugoslavia. Inflation was 11% in both 1969 and 1970. In 1971 the government devalued the dinar by 17%. (New York Times, January 24, p. 21) For the size of the debt to the IMF, see NYT, September 14, 1985. According to the NYT, September 19, 1985 inflation in Yugoslavia was 76% for June, 1985 alone. 3. NYT, September 24, 1984, I, p. 2.
4. The Guardian ran stories of these 48 hours of street protests on July 7 and July 8, 1988 (the quotes are from The Guardian of July 8, p.11). According to the story of July 7, the striking workers' banners proclaimed such things as, "We want to be free in a socialist country," and "Down with the government." Both slogans seemed to indicate workers' lack of enthusiasm for the capitalist reforms then being imposed by the government.
5. These events are described in The Guardian, October 10, 1988 p. 24, and October 11, 1988, p. 10. "Titograd" has since reverted to its ancient name, "Podgorica."
6. Christopher Bennett, Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course, and Consequences (New York: New York University Press, 1994), p. 69.
7. The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 1989, p. 1.
8. The Guardian, April 26, 1991, p. 32.
9. Laura Silber and Allan Little draw a similar conclusion, though they attribute the dismemberment of the country to a different rationale: "This book shows that Yugoslavia did not die a natural death. Rather, it was deliberately killed off by men who had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful transition from state socialism and one-party rule to free-market democracy....[D]espite the appearance of chaos, the wars have been prosecuted with terrifying rationality by protagonists playing long-term power games." Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 25, 27. The argument of their book, however, begs the question of the key reason for the conflict: as a succession of Yugoslav leaders learned to their grief, "peaceful transition...to free-market democracy [sic]" was impossible, not because of the ambitions of individual leaders, but because massive workers' resistance to capitalist restructuring blocked the way. According to a British diplomat on the scene in April, 1991, "while the mounting industrial unrest in Serbia, the biggest of the republics, poses a threat to Mr Milosevic, any serious economic restructuring there would be a greater risk." (The Guardian, April 26, 1991, p. 32.) Milosevic and other ex-Communist leaders obviously preferred ethnic conflict, which strengthened their hand, to class war, which threatened to pull them under. Silber, the Balkans Correspondent for the London Financial Times, and Little, a BBC reporter, avoid dealing with this central contradiction in their argument by not dealing with the working class in their book at all, except in the guise of nationalist mobs.
10. Lenard Cohen, Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia's Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995) p. 56.
11. Many reporters have detailed instances of the conscious manipulation of ethnic hatreds, by methods ranging from media propaganda to inflicting atrocities. While analysts differ in the degree to which they attribute ethnic fighting to active orchestration by government-linked thugs and provocateurs, they are in agreement that "The fact that for several years nationalistic media outlets closely tied to political leaders and parties bombarded their respective communities with disturbing and often completely false images about their ethnic neighbors significantly reinforced traditional patterns of ethnic distance and ethnic mistrust." Cohen, p. 247. Cf. The Guardian, May 8, 1991, p. 8, which claims that "fear and loathing between Serbs and Croats are intentionally being stirred" by political leaders.
12. Milosevic, it is known, has continued to maintain close connections with ultranationalist paramilitary groups and with such figures of the Belgrade underworld as one "aspiring warlord" who goes by the nom de guerre Arkan, whose irregular troops, the Arkan "Tigers," in what Cohen refers to as "one of the most notorious examples of externally-orchestrated paramilitary activity... helped fuel the onset of hostilities between Serbs and Moslems in Bosnia in 1992" when they brutally "liberated" a small, predominantly Muslim village. Cohen, p. 248. One expedient used by leaders of the various ethnic groups to whip up ethnic anger and fear was to fire all of one ethnic group from their jobs. Thus, for example, the HDZ (Croatian Party of the Right), the party of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, in June, 1991 began to fire all Serbs from a wide variety of jobs in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, stoking the tensions that led to war. Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 77.
13. Bennett, p. 223.
14. Wildcat No. 18, Summer 1996 (London), p. 17.
15. Bennett, p. 145.
16. Guardian, April 26, 1991, p. 32.
17. Guardian, July 28, 1993, I, p. 8.
18. Guardian, August 13, 1991, I, p. 2. Milosevic paid for his wars on Croatia and Bosnia by printing money, unleashing a hyperinflation which "won for his country the world record inflation rate-313 million percent per month-surpassing previous record holders Weimar Germany and Hungary in 1946." Silber and Little, p. 385.
19. Wildcat, pp. 20-21.
20. Glenny, p. 131.
21. Wildcat, ibid.
22. Guardian, January 7, 1997, I, p. 10.
23. Randolph Ryan, Boston Globe, April 4, 1999, C, p. 3.
24. The peace agreements, which legitimized ethnic cleansing and strengthened the initiators of ethnic fighting, further destabilized Yugoslavia. "The US, like the European Union before it, recognized Milosevic as key to finding a solution, and turned a blind eye to his complicity in the crimes that were committed in the prosecution of Serbian war aims....The settlement had the effect of strengthening the hand-in their respective states-of the two men [Milosevic and Tudjman] on whose shoulders the lion's share of the responsibility for Yugoslavia's tragedy lies." Silber and Little, pp. 389.
25. For example, the US "tacitly encouraged" the ethnic cleansing of 480,000 Serbs from Krajina in Croatia. Silber and Little contend, "[The US-sponsored Dayton agreement] represented the pursuit of peace through ethnic cleansing." Silber and Little, pp. 383-384.
Reprinted from New Democracy, May-June 1999. For free copy, send your postal address to Newdem@aol.com or write New Democracy, P.O. Box 427, Boston, MA 02130. Homepage: http://users.aol.com/newdem/